In the wake of another recently broken bone (this time my foot!) I’ve been thinking again about pain and its role in our lives. It’s indeed an interesting matter: Like the age-old mind/body split, popular thinking separates pain into physical and mental states. If you follow this train of thought, pain is either ‘outside’ or ‘inside,’ corporeal or cerebral and we happen to have separate drugs to solve both. But we don’t have separate forms of art – for instance music grapples with heartbreak and loss but you usually don’t hear your favorite singers crooning about their morning back ache.
For almost 3 decades I was living with formidable physical pain in my wrist. Having shattered it on my first (and last) hang gliding attempt, the accident put an abrupt end to a possible future career as a classical pianist. I had already been studying at the university level at the age of 13, so when I peered down at my folded, flopping wrist right after the crash, the hang gliding instructors misinterpreted my streaming tears as physical pain. In fact I was in a state of panic, fearing I would never play again.
Through the botched work of a distracted emergency room doctor, my wrist was incorrectly set. My fear became reality when a year after the injury I still couldn’t play for more than a half-hour at a time (which explains the anxious rushing of my first cassette of original compositions, animus). But in a positive light, the world of goth, rock, and other alternative sound opened itself in the wake of not being able to practice my Hanon exercises hours upon end.
Fast forward: in 2012 I began losing control of my hand movements. X-rays revealed that severe deformities were messing with my nerves. But the doctors also kept asking: Aren’t you in a lot of pain? No, in fact I really didn’t feel anything in my wrist. The verdict from some of Boston’s best orthopedic surgeons was operate immediately before the malformed bones pinched the nerves to a critical point. A high-tech surgery involving spine marrow extraction and the titanium shown above finally fixed my wrist. After a year of physical therapy, flexibility was almost back to my age 13 levels.
But that’s not the interesting part. Over the decades as I had trained myself to turn off the physical pain in my wrist, somehow I had inadvertently turned off the mental pain as well. With no longer any discomfort in my wrist to fight against, waves of emotions returned. It was as if an entire bandwidth of color had been shut off and now was visible again.
2012, the year of my surgery, will forever be a kind a pin-hole aperture where shadows of the past intersect the blinding light of the future. In fact the very reason for this blog, metaphorically captured in the x-ray above, is to grapple with the tumult, torment, and joy that a change to the body brought to the mind. The lesson here is that just as we can dull our physical sensations, we can also make a habit of shutting off our emotional states. But the more we bottle up our feelings, the more they seem to appear as ghosts, haunting us even in our waking hours. And here is where music comes in: for all those charged moments from our history that still bring on yearning or ache, music is like an x-ray that allows the past, present, and future to find reconciliation even if for a fleeing moment.